So many people are fighting so bitterly over the alleged link between vaccines and autism right now: On this website, in federal court, and even within prominent American families -- as poignantly reported in today's New York Times.
But the grueling debate has actually united the fighting factions in at least one way: Most people (save for a handful of fringe parents who believe that autism is some altered state of being, worthy of celebration) are probably just plain tired of autism and the fight over its cause. They really want to settle this debate and move on.
I know I do.
The irony is that the multi-million-dollar court battles, the melodramatic headlines and the alarm over parents retreating from vaccinations are all so terribly unnecessary.
All we need do is conduct a thorough study of vaccinated and unvaccinated children, and see if there is any difference in their rates of autism spectrum disorders.
It could be a year or more before we get a decision on the first autism "test case" being heard in federal vaccine court right now, and years more before all 4,800 pending cases are settled. Meanwhile, the Gonzales Justice Department has earmarked millions in taxpayer dollars to fight the autism parents and their attorneys tooth-and-nail in these supposedly "non-adversarial" administrative proceedings. And regardless of the court rulings, neither side is going to back down, period.
But one good study by a respected team of investigators could probably settle this mess by Christmas.
Last year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced the "Comprehensive Comparative Study of Vaccinated and Unvaccinated Populations Act," to spend federal money on looking closely at the two groups of children.
The CDC, which has the conflicted task of boosting vaccination rates while also monitoring vaccine safety, dismissed the Maloney bill, saying it would be impossible to locate large enough numbers of unvaccinated American children needed for an accurate comparison.
But that simply isn't true. Dan Olmsted, author of the "Age of Autism" column at UPI, wrote last year about a large medical group in the Chicago suburbs called Homefirst Health Services, which is largely geared toward parents who home birth their kids, and who tend not to vaccinate.
Dr. Mayer Eisenstien, who founded the practice in 1973, told Olmsted that, of the 35,000 children given care at Homefirst, very few have autism, and those who do were all vaccinated. "I don't think we have a single case of autism in children delivered by us who never received vaccines," he said. (Cases of childhood diabetes and asthma were also reportedly very low.)
Other possible unvaccinated populations include children of chiropractors, Scientologists Christian Scientists and the Amish -- though some protest that this last group might be protected by insular genes or a pre-industrial lifestyle, without noting the obvious benefit that such a groundbreaking discovery would confer.
Critics of the study idea, who insist that vaccines have been 100 percent exonerated, ridicule the Maloney bill as a redundant, monumental waste of time and money.
Even so, their position is a bit hard to understand. No matter what happens in Vaccine Court, (which many say is the wrong venue for such a fight, anyway), this tired old debate will drag on for years, God help us. (For an excellent explanation of why, please read last Friday's blog by CBS News Capitol Hill Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson).
But a study of vaccinated-vs.-unvaccinated kids would, in its powerful, elegant simplicity, compel at least one side to finally fold up shop and go away.
When doing autism surveillance studies, The CDC usually looks at eight-year-olds, to ensure that all late-diagnosed kids are counted. It seems reasonable, then, to randomly select 1,000 (or 5,000, or whatever number is needed for statistical significance) unvaccinated eight-year-olds, and compare them to vaccinated children of the same age (born in 1999, by the way, at the height of mercury exposures from vaccines).
Will autism rates be exactly the same between the two groups, as the CDC and others would predict (especially among boys, who are four times more likely than girls to have the disorder)?
It's perfectly reasonable to assume that they will (thus disproving Olmsted's intriguing, but admittedly layperson's, report out of Chicago).
And just think what a joyous moment that would be. I, for one, would be shouting from the rooftops. I take no joy in pointing to vaccines as a possible contributor to autism, and I would be only too happy to declare the hypothesis dead in the water, and move on with my (admittedly autism-free) life with friends and family.
Many scientists will say that other large population studies of vaccines failed to show a link to autism, but none of those studies were the same as this proposed investigation, which would look at all vaccines given to children who were all born in the United States, in the same year, and even maybe in the same region.
Such a massive work of epidemiology could run a million dollars or more. But that is just a fraction of what is being spent, by us via our government, right now defending vaccines in federal court.
If the drug companies, and the Bush Administration, and Congress, and the public health establishment, are so very confident in the total safety of all childhood vaccines (and their components, including mercury), then why would they reasonably object to such a study?
If the results showed that vaccinated children were, all around, more healthy and robust than unvaccinated kids -- that would pretty much kill all lawsuits right there, send waves of reassurance to billions of parents around the world, and make people like me shut up and go away.
I would, blissfully, not write about autism and vaccines again. (I have a new book deal to occupy me, about corporate vs. environmental health, which my publisher St. Martin's Press will announce shortly. I am not an autism activist, and this is not my crusade).
And if the federal government or the drug companies simply won't cough up the finances needed to fund such a feud-settling study, then maybe when Bob Wright begins speaking with his daughter Katie again, she can convince him to propose that the mega-charity write a mega-check.
PS: You can view a 30-minute highlight of my interview with Katie Wright, sponsored by the Foundation for Autism Information and Research (FAIR) by clicking here.